What the suffragists thought about choice

When suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were advocating for women’s right to vote, birth control was still spoken about only in whispers. Condoms wouldn’t become popular for decades and the contraceptive pill hadn’t even been imagined. Promoting contraception could get you charged with “obscenity”. 

Despite that, early feminists imagined a world where women could control their own bodies and futures – even though they framed it in language that is unfamiliar to us today. 

Susan B. Anthony, an older white woman in Victorian clothes, poses for a portrait.
Susan B. Anthony, photographed by Frances Benjamin Johnston.

Were early feminists like Susan B. Anthony anti-choice? 

Anti-choice advocates frequently claim that Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others were anti-abortion. However, the evidence just isn’t on their side: Scholars say that these claims are based on factual errors.

In fact, neither Anthony or Stanton took a public stand on abortion. They rarely even mentioned it privately. 

The right of a woman to her own person  

The suffragists pushed for “voluntary motherhood”– the idea that women should be able to refuse to have sex with their husbands to control their fertility. By having sex only when they wanted to, women could have fewer, healthier pregnancies. 

At the time, wives had no legal right to refuse sex with their husbands. Marital rape was not illegal in all states until 1993. Perhaps that’s why Stanton even ranked voluntary motherhood — which she defined as “the sacred right of a woman to her own person” — as more important than the right to vote! She argued that it was crucial for women to have a say in “when a new being should be brought into the world.” 

Another suffragist, Lucy Stone, said, “It is very little to me to have the right to vote, to own property … if I may not keep my body, and its uses, in my absolute right. Not one wife in a thousand can do that now, & so long as she suffers this bondage, all other rights will not help her to her true position.” 

Bold women, past and present, making choice possible. 

Suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone pushed for women to have greater control of their own bodies. That work isn’t over: Around the world, the bold women of MSI are making choice possible for women in need. 

In the face of stigma and taboos, MSI’s courageous healthcare providers are transforming attitudes towards reproductive healthcare. Through their work, more women are free to make their own decisions about their futures. 

Inspired by the bold women of the past, we’ll keep working until every woman who wants contraception can access it.  

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